The Running of the Penguins
There were moments—admittedly, rare ones—when High Priest Raja preferred the quiet solitude of meditation to the conviviality of drinking or socializing with friends. In these moments, he preferred to drink kej, the traditional strong tea of Dezolis, to wine or other liquor. Alcohol was for parties, and he'd met very few people who could be a party all by themselves. Rune Walsh was a possible exception; with five generations of Lutzes crammed into his skull Raja wondered how any room was left for thinking.
"An extra personality in his brain, guiding his actions," Raja reflected. "He might as well be married."
Whatever else one might say about Raja, he was still a priest of the Church, a devout man, and he savored the moments of quiet contemplation that came with the kej Tuumjem, the tea ceremony. Moving his long, green-skinned fingers precisely, he measured out an exact amount of tea onto the strainer, placed it over the cup, and lifted the kettle from the stove. As he began the first of five pours, he found his mind entering that perfect meditative state wherein—
"Master Raja! Come quickly!"
Hot water and tea splashed everywhere as the sudden interruption shattered Raja's concentration. The three-hundred-year-old porcelain cup was likewise shattered a moment later when the kettle landed on it.
"Um...sorry, Your Eminence," murmured the young boy whose precipitate entrance had set off the chain of events.
"I shall consider it another reminder not to take life too seriously, Snowjumper."
"Um...'Snowjumper,' Master Raja?"
"Do you see any grass on this planet? I'm eighty-six years old and I certainly haven't."
"Then Snowjumper it will have to be. Now, what is this emergency that gives an old man a hot bath?"
The boy's eyes went wide.
"It's horrible, Master Raja! It could mean the end of our life here in Zosa!"
"All of the Dezolis Penguins are missing!"
Penguin, Dezolis: Created through breeding experiments in the town of Zosa, the Dezolis Penguin is descended from the predatory Dezo Owl species and retains the distinctive blue and white coloration of its progenitors. Standing seven feet tall and weighing in excess of eight hundred pounds, the Dezolis Penguin is not used as food. A sociable, friendly, and docile creature, it is incapable of flight and not adapted to finding food in the wild, so it exists only in captivity.
The inhabitants of Zosa use the eggs of the Dezolis Penguin for food, and the molted down of chicks is used as a warm, insulating filler in pillows, mattresses, quilts, jackets, and similar products which are exported to the rest of Dezolis.—from Aukba to Zosa and In-Between; an Encyclopedia of Life on Dezolis (Meese Press, 2263)
If the Dezolis Penguins were truly gone, Raja realized, it could mean the end of Zosa's primary trade, the way of life around which everything else in the town was based.
"So why tell me?"
"Because," stated a deeper voice than the boy's, "you are a holy man, a powerful magician, and an adventurer of impressive reputation. You are the only man in Zosa who could possibly unravel this mystery."
It was Raja's host, Prelate Nodiras, who had followed the boy in. Raja clucked his tongue at the younger man.
"Has the Church sunk so far? Are you so incapable of handling local annoyances that you must flatter and cajole an old man into doing this job for you?"
"Eminence, you are the highest-ranking member of the Church who is here—"
"On vacation!" he cut the Prelate off sharply. He wagged one forefinger in the other man's direction. "Never take such matters lightly. The rest of life, maybe, but fun is serious business!" He shook his head regretfully at the way the younger generation seemed not to understand such basic priorities. Still and all, looking at the plaintive expressions on their faces, he couldn't resist stepping in. A sour spirit didn't make for sweet wine, after all.
Besides, the spilled hot water was starting to seep through his robe, and he'd never get the privacy to change unless he gave in to the group's nagging.
"Oh, very well. I'll help you track down these low characters who carried off the penguins."
"If they weren't low to begin with, after carrying off all those half-ton birds they certainly are low now."
Meanwhile, about a mile away, two men leaned against a sturdy fence of pine logs that blocked off the end of a tiny canyon.
"What do you think, Zufa? Just as I said. We've got the whole town right in our hands."
Zufa sucked on the stem of his laermawood pipe, inhaling the smoke of the cheap tabak that burned fitfully in the bowl.
"I don't know, Rufo. These are an awful lot of birds, and they're really big. I heard they bred 'em from Dezo Owls, and I wouldn't want to run into one of those, let alone a whole flock."
"Ah, don't be silly. These guys are as docile as can be. I mean, they let them run around town loose, right?"
"I just don't know about it..."
Suddenly, as if on cue, the heads of all the fenced penguins turned towards the men. They raised their beaks as if sniffing the air, and then as one, they cried out.
Then they started to move.
"Oh, no, Rufo! It's a stampede!"
They'd built a sturdy fence, but no fence on Dezolis could hold back the power of an entire herd of Dezolis Penguins charging at full speed.
"Keep stirring, men!" Raja encouraged. The four underpriests grunted assent and continued to walk in circles around the gigantic trough he'd had them set up in the center of town, working the mix with their long paddles. The bed of hot coals beneath made for a constant slow heat, but they had to keep the mix agitated to release the odors into the wind. "Pretend you're planning a sermon—you need a congregation to preach to, right?"
Suddenly, a rumbling noise could be heard, far-off. It grew and grew, until the very ground seemed to vibrate. Actually, as it turned out, the ground really was vibrating, as dozens of penguins swept into the center of Zosa and immediately crowded around the trough. The underpriests barely scattered out of the way as the penguins bent their heads and dug into the giant batch of fresh Pengu-Feed.
"Well, that's that," Raja said, dusting imaginary specks from his hands. "Who's for a drink?"
"Your Eminence, pardon me," Prelate Nodiras said hesitantly. "I know that you've saved the Dezolis Penguins which are the life's blood of our community, but there is still another point which is not yet resolved, namely the identities of the miscreants who perpetrated this horrible offense and who must be brought to justice to answer for their heinous criminal activities before all of Zosa!"
Raja just stared.
"What? Oh! I'm sorry; I was just trying to get from one end of that sentence to the other. You really ought to hand out maps."
Nodiras swelled up with insulted pride, then remembered that he was talking to a high official who was also a hero of Dezolis and the man who'd just recovered the missing penguins. The effect was unusual, sort of like a gerotlux who'd puffed up to spit sleep gas but couldn't find a target. Which, Raja supposed, was an analogy that would make sense to anyone who'd heard Nodiras talk.
"As for the criminals," he said, courteously saving his host the trouble of disentangling his ego from the fix, "it should be easy to get them, if you and your police-wardens move fast."
"Move fast? But where?"
Raja sighed, but pressed on. It was the duty of the aged to educate the young.
"Nodiras, eighty thousand pounds of hungry fowl just stampeded into town. That leaves a trail in the snow. All you have to do is follow the path back to where the penguins were kept. If the rustlers are trying to catch up to their quarry, they might even be polite and meet you halfway."